Terence Blacker: The web holds up a mirror to our cruelty

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The Independent Online

When the shaggy libertarians of the love generation first pioneered the idea of the internet, they believed it would be an instrument for free expression, democracy and anarchy. Taking hippie values into the cybernetic age, it would bring the kind of freely shared, co-operative knowledge to be found in The Whole Earth Catalogue to anyone with a computer. The stranglehold on information and power previously held by a small élite would be broken for ever by this great new, democratising medium.

How differently things have turned out. The élite may be tamed, with politicians eagerly launching their weblogs and limbering up for appearances on YouTube, but, down among the common folk, the internet has not been the joyful free-for-all of information and contact that had once been hoped.

Far from being an expression of freedom, cyberspace is rapidly becoming synonymous with power and its abuse. It allows various and significant invasions of privacy. The jolly rough-and-tumble of debate between bloggers has turned ugly, with such foul and abusive postings, sometimes with faked-up pornographic pictures, that there have been calls for a code of practice. The very forum which delighted in the lack of rules now seems anxious to introduce them.

Unsurprisingly, the more liberated bloggers have responded badly to being scolded, believing that the very point of the internet is that it is a place where someone has the freedom to behave badly. "This effort misses the point of the internet, blogs, and even of civilised behaviour," one has written. "They treat the blogosphere as if it were a school library where someone ... can maintain order and control."

Not that that there is much order in the school library, to judge by the increasingly popular practice of filming acts of humiliation inflicted on teachers or children and posting them on websites such as YouTube or RateMyTeacher. It has become so widespread that this week the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, will daringly announce that cyber-bullying is a thoroughly bad thing.

It has not taken people long to realise that the internet offers exciting new opportunities for mobbing and cruelty. The fact that a person's relationship with his or her computer is increasingly intimate - for some, it is a refuge where they are truly themselves - makes it a far better forum for inflicting embarrassment or fear than any classroom or playground. A cyber-threat or taunt, potentially shared with millions, reminds the victim that nowhere, however private, is safe.

It is an unattractive insight into human nature, the way that a democratic medium has so quickly led to new and sophisticated types of cruelty, but it is hardly a surprise. Bullying of one kind or another is at the heart of early 21st-century western culture. It is there in virtually every reality show - the greater the nastiness inflicted on the participants, the more successful the show. It is in the laughter of the audience attending a zanier chat-show of the Graham Norton type, in the paparazzi shots of well-known people looking old, ugly, unhappy or undignified. It is in various media campaigns, and may even be in politics itself.

So why on earth should adults be so scandalised that children, many of whom learn the art of cruelty before any other, might also enjoy using the new technology to humiliate the vulnerable without fear of repercussion or retaliation? They have the camera, the distribution, the eager, cruelty-loving audience. They are simply putting on their own little reality shows.

It's enough to make a cat laugh

The news that another air-brained celebrity has pulled down a massive publishing deal rarely fails to evoke a stab of irritation. When 70,000 people bought a hardback by the Big Brother nonentity Chantal, for example, it was difficult not to be depressed.

Now Chantal has been upstaged. From America comes news of a $1.25m advance for the memoirs of a cat called Dewey, a former stray who hung out in a library in Iowa for 19 years. According to a website devoted to the ginger tom, pictured here with librarian Vicki Myron, his skills included "reducing stress", "providing comic relief" and "generally being cute".

There is money to be made from this kind of stuff, as our own Roy Hattersley and his literary terrier Buster have discovered. Do not be surprised if the biggest deal at next week's London Book Fair is done with a member of the animal kingdom.

* There has been much hand-wringing at figures from the Office of National Statistics which indicate that one in three women aged 35 now remains single. It seems that in 1990, astonishingly, only one in 10 women remained unmarried at the same age. Describing "an incredible collapse", a spokesman for the think-tank Civitas has announced that "what we are seeing is a huge and growing gap between what people want in their lives and what they are getting."

That may be true but only if one believes in a 1950s fantasy of married life does it have anything to do with whether women remain single for longer. The statistics merely suggest that women in their thirties are pursuing their own priorities without being nagged by the marriage lobby into a traditional domestic unit.

A less reported but equally significant survey reveals that divorce rates are declining year by year after an all-time peak in 1993. Even in that murky Civitas think-tank, they might see that there is a connection between these two sets of figures.

terblacker@aol.com

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